Emergency has some in Concord reconsidering bottle ban

By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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CONCORD — It seemed like a good idea to many residents, at least last week, before much of the surrounding area experienced the equivalent of an aquatic apocalypse.

Less than 48 hours before a ruptured water main cut the supply of potable water to about 2 million people in the Boston area, local residents voted to ban all sales of bottled water, an unprecedented measure in the country meant to spur other municipalities to reduce the rising amount of plastic clogging the nation’s streets and landfills.

No one here could have imagined there would be such a dramatic counterpoint to their controversial vote over the weekend, when thirsty residents in about 30 communities began to raid store shelves.

“I think a lot of people are reflecting on the vote, and they’re asking, ‘How could 300 or so people at Town Meeting do such a thing?’’ said Anita Tekle, who has received more calls about the water vote than any other vote in the 12 years she has served as town clerk. “People are saying, in light of this crisis, that it’s crazy to ban bottled water, that we look like fools.’’

Concord was not one of the communities that lost its water supply, but residents in this enclave about 20 miles west of Boston know they are not exempt from water main breaks or other catastrophes.

Many of the supporters of the new law, which remains slated to take effect in January, insist residents made the right decision. They say bottled water remains unnecessary for daily use and that communities should stockpile jugs of tap water or bottles for emergencies.

Jean Hill, 82, who spent months lobbying neighbors to take action against bottled water, said too many people panicked. She noted that most people could easily have spent a few minutes boiling water, rather then rushing to buy bottled water.

“I have no second thoughts about this vote,’’ she said, adding that she understands it was hard for students or others in large institutions such as nursing homes to boil water. “The problem is that when there isn’t a crisis, too many people use bottled water instead of tap water, and that creates a lot of pollution.’’

Others who strongly supported the ban conceded that Concord might want to modify the law, which has to pass muster with state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Officials in her office declined to comment on the law’s validity.

Bob Lawson, 57, a video producer who has lived in Concord for 30 years, gave a rousing speech Thursday in favor of the ban, helping it win passage, even though a majority of selectmen opposed the measure.

Yesterday, he said the law should be amended to focus on single-serving bottles.

“The crisis, I think, has made it clear that there should be some exceptions,’’ Lawson said. “I consider that there’s so much plastic not being recycled an emergency, too. But I do think there should be consideration to allow the sale of larger containers of water for emergencies.’’

The Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group, says 88 percent of plastic water bottles are not recycled.

More than 100 municipalities in the United States have sought to reduce consumption of bottled water, but industry advocates said they are unaware of any other town that has taken such strong action against the sale of bottled water. Last year, sales totaled $10.6 billion for 8.5 billion gallons nationwide, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based industry group.

In Massachusetts in 2008, the industry sold 46.3 gallons of bottled water per resident, ranking fourth in the nation.

The vote against bottled water has sparked a vigorous debate in Concord.

On one online forum devoted to Concord issues, Jim Canty, a town resident, wrote: “Funny how Karma works. Within 48 hours of our [Town Meeting] deciding to outlaw the sale of bottled water, millions of our fellow citizens in Massachusetts lost their source of clean tap water. I arrived at my Boston office this morning and was quite thankful to have 16 cases of Poland Spring bottles to get us through this week.’’

Mary Leonhardt, 66, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Concord for 20 years, wrote on the forum that she hopes the attorney general rejects the law.

In a telephone interview, she explained: “I don’t use bottled water much, but I’m not that much of a micromanager. I don’t think this is the kind of thing you should legislate.’’

At the Main Streets Market & Café, owner Dave Anderson offered a compromise.

He said he sells a brand of bottled water that contends to be in a biodegradable, earth-friendly bottle. It costs about 25 percent more than standard bottled water, but he said it’s worth it to give his customers the choice.

David Abel can be reached at

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